For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
-Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (ESV)
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
-Acts 15:10 (ESV)
Peter’s statement, which seems to disparage the Torah, presents no difficulty for traditional Christian interpretation. Gentile Christianity has always taken a dim view of Torah and is glad to dismiss “Old Testament law” as an unbearable yoke. Disdain for the Torah is not a Jewish perspective. Instead, the apostles teach that “the Torah is spiritual,” “the Torah is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good,” and most pertinent to Peter’s so-called deprecation, God’s commandments are not unbearable: “His commandments are not burdensome.”
Given this positive view of the Torah and the fact that 1 John 5:3 explicitly says that God’s commandments are not burdensome, could Simon Peter have referred to the Torah as a yoke “that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”
This is Part 2 of this multi-part series on Acts 15 and its implications for Christians and Jews today. If you haven’t done so already, please read Part 1 before continuing here.
So how could Peter believe that the Torah was too difficult for his Jewish fathers (ancestors) and his Jewish people to bear and still presumably believe that the Torah was good, spiritual, holy, and righteous?
In some of my previous talks with my Pastor about Jewish obligation to Torah, one of the areas we discussed was whether or not it was possible to obey the Law perfectly. Pastor Randy says “no” and I tend to agree with him because as Paul has said, ” for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) I may upset some of my Jewish readers, but personally, I don’t think that any Jewish person (let alone any non-Jew who has ever tried) has ever perfectly performed all of the mitzvot, from the day it was given by God to the Children of Israel through Moses, forward to the present.
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
-James 2:10 (ESV)
Funny that James should write such a thing, when he was also present with the council of Apostles listening to Peter speak about how much of a burden Torah is. James seems to be saying that it is impossible to keep the Torah because there are so many difficult commandments, and this verse, along with Peter’s statement, are part of the scriptures many Christians use to justify how the Law is now dead (and sometimes Judaism along with it) and has been replaced by grace (and sometimes replaced by Christians).
Is there an alternate way of understanding all of this and also preserving Jewish devotion to Torah for the Messianic Apostles and disciples? Lancaster in his commentary on Acts 15 seemed to think so.
To insist that Simon Peter could not have referred to the Torah’s obligations as a difficult burden simply because other texts contradict that sentiment denies a literal reading of Scripture. Peter was able to articulate the idea that, though the Torah is a source of blessing and holiness, it is also difficult. A naive, rigid, theological reading, which cannot tolerate tension between one passage and another, will find this difficult, but the Jewish voice, following the contour of Hebraic thought, would find no difficulty in admitting it.
-ibid, pp 437-8
Nevertheless, some commentators have attempted to reduce the “tension” Lancaster mentions by insisting that the “Torah” Peter was speaking of was the “Oral Law of the Pharisees,” even though Acts 15:5 specifically references the “law of Moses.”
But Peter, as a Jew who had lived in the Jewish homeland all his life, and had observed the mitzvot and halachah all of his life, knew what he was talking about, and so did his Jewish audience. If Peter had required that the Gentile disciples all convert to Judaism, he would be requiring them to be obligated to the full weight of the Torah. While it is an honor to serve God and to walk in His ways as a Jew, it is not easy.
A yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear…
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.
Paul echos Peter’s statement and describes a state in which, should a Gentile disciple convert and be bound to Torah, he or she will be obligated unrelentingly to the full weight of the yoke of the Law. According to Lancaster this includes the following:
Previous generations of Jewish history had already proven the Torah to be an unbearable duty for sinful human beings. The Torah is a source of blessing, but outside the Messiah’s righteousness, it is also a source of curse. All men sin and fall short of the glory of God and incur his wrath. “The law brings wrath.” (Romans 4:15). Peter only means to point out that obligation to the Torah (Jewish status) is not an avenue to salvation.
In addition to the theological ramifications of forcing Gentile believers to become Jewish and keep the whole yoke of Torah, the apostles also had in mind the very practical implications of such a decision. If the Gentile believers took on halalaic Jewish status, they placed themselves under the authority of the Torah courts (including the Sanhedrin, which was at the time, hostile to believers)…
-ibid, pg 438
Lancaster may be reading between the lines about what the Apostles were and weren’t thinking about, but it’s a reasonable assumption. If the Gentiles could only be saved by converting to Judaism and converting to Judaism meant full halalaic obligation to Torah and the traditions, then any theological and legal consequences for failure to perform the mitzvot correctly landed right on their shoulders. This also means that any particular blessings Gentiles are intended to receive because they are Gentiles attaching themselves to God, would be lost when they converted.
Before we continue, I want to point out something special Lancaster said:
The Torah is a source of blessing, but outside the Messiah’s righteousness, it is also a source of curse.
If the Torah has always been too difficult to obey, and outside of Messiah, it is a source of both blessings and curses, why did God give the Torah at one point in history and bring the Messiah much later?
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
Faith in God and God’s graciousness to humanity was always the foundation. Paul made a point to tell that to the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome. The Torah does not justify you. It never did. Torah was never the mechanism by which an individual or the nation of Israel was justified before God. It was by faith. The mitzvot were, in many ways, given originally to be sort of the “national constitution” of ancient Israel, and a description of the way of life the Israelites were to live because they were God’s chosen ones. Yes, part of the Torah was to enable Israel to be a light to the nations and to attract them (us) to God, but Torah didn’t exist for its own sake, at least not according to Paul.
What did Peter have to say about this?
But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
His response to those Jews who believed the Gentiles must convert to Judaism to be saved was to say that by placing the Torah upon the Gentiles, it would be an unbearable yoke for them…and for the Gentiles, who after all were not standing there with the Israelites at Sinai, conversion and full Torah obligation wasn’t necessary. Like the Jews, they were also saved through the grace of Christ. Both Jewish and Gentile believers were and are saved only through the grace of Messiah, but the Jews retain additional obligations under the yoke of Torah, which they can bear because of Moshiach’s righteousness.
But where does Peter get off making such a decision (or at least arguing for making such a decision) for the Gentiles?
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
You may have your own opinion on what you think Christ giving Peter the “keys to the kingdom” means. Here’s Lancaster’s interpretation:
“Since the elders agreed with what had been said by Peter, the whole assembly kept quiet.” (see Acts 15:12) The Master had given Simon Peter the “keys to the kingdom of heaven,” the halachic authority to bind and to loose in matters concerning His assembly. Simon’s testimony made it clear that he loosed the Gentiles from the obligation of circumcision and coming under the yoke of Torah as Jews.
-ibid, pg 439
In other words, Jesus personally gave Peter halalaic authority to make binding decisions for the disciples, Jews and Gentiles, who were members of the sect “the Way.”
I’ll stop here and pick up with James and his summation of the arguments that had been presented in the next part of this series, but I do want to make clear what’s been said so far. Although many Jews did not comprehend how the Gentile disciples could become disciples without conversion to Judaism, Peter (see Part 1) reminded the assembly that Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit and were baptized but were not circumcised, thus illustrating that salvation was also available to the Gentiles without converting to Judaism.
We have to go to Galatians to support Peter’s argument that only being born Jewish or converting to Judaism required a person to be obligated to perform the full body of Torah mitzvot. This was apparently a common understanding among all of the Jews present and no one disputed it.
Peter had the halalaic authority to make such decisions or at least to seriously suggest them before the council (and James was the head of the council, so his response is still required before any conclusions can be made), so that, plus his experience with Cornelius, made him more than qualified to say that the Gentile disciples should not be made to convert to Judaism and it would be “testing God” (see Luke 4:12) to do otherwise.
But the final decision hasn’t been made. We still need to review James’s response to all of the testimony presented and then his (and the Holy Spirit’s) final decision on the matter. We’ll begin with the response of James in Part 3.